In study after study, researchers have found the root of success starts between the covers of a children’s book.

Low literacy in adults have been linked to increased rates of poverty, unemployment, incarceration and hospitalization. Children who develop reading skills early are less likely to be held back in a grade, more likely graduate high school and will earn more money in their future careers.

The key is to get books in the hands of every child as soon as possible, said Franklin College English professor Susan Crisafulli.

“They’re not starting behind the eight-ball. They’re able to start kindergarten on track, and won’t have to work extra hard to get where they’re supposed to. That leads to better graduation rates, which leads to better lives,” she said.

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Crisafulli has been so moved by the impacts of childhood literacy that she wants to ensure every kid in Franklin has their own personal library. With the help of the Johnson County Community Foundation, she has established a Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library.

The program, established by Parton and overseen by her Dollywood Foundation, mails books to children between birth and age 5. The books come at no cost to the family, and will keep coming monthly.

By the time kids enter kindergarten, they’ll have a fully stocked home library and the skills to succeed throughout their lives, said David Dotson, president of the Dollywood Foundation.

“From the beginning, the goal has been to inspire a love of reading and a love of books and a love of learning in children, planting the seeds of that inspiration between that ages of zero and 5,” he said. “Those first five years are so important and defining in a child’s life.”

Finding a comfy corner of the Johnson County Public Library in Franklin, Callista Buchen sat down with her children Fred, 2, and Audrey, 5, on either side of her. This afternoon, the story of the day was “Mr. Putter & Tabby Make a Wish,” part of a series of children’s books by Cynthia Rylant.

The library was one of their favorite places. Rare were the occasions where they didn’t leave with a stack of books for Fred and Audrey. That was why when Buchen heard about the plans for a Franklin Imagination Library, she signed Fred up right away.

He was the first to join the local program when registration opened July 15.

“It’s awesome. Books are great, and getting the chance to connect through stories and language is not just good for him, but good for all of us,” Buchen said.

Parton founded the Imagination Library in 1995. The idea was to help children in her home Sevier County, Tennessee, achieve their dreams, stimulating their imaginations and encouraging reading within the family at an early age.

Through her foundation, Parton was able to send every child in the county who signed up a book each month.

“For her, growing up in Sevier County, at the time it wasn’t a very economic affluent place. Her father could not read or write, and many people she knew as a child couldn’t read or write,” Dotson said. “She’s always said that her father was undoubtedly the smartest man she ever knew, but was always limited by the fact he couldn’t read or write. She decided early on that she would do something to help children avoid that reality.”

By 2000, the program was so successful that Parton announced that she would partner with communities throughout the U.S. to spread it nationwide. Affiliates can now be found in the U.S., United Kingdom, Australia and Canada. More than 85.4 million books have been given to preschoolers over that time, with 1.1 million books going out every month, Dotson said.

Crisafulli became aware of the program when she lived in Tennessee. Her children, now ages 12 and 10, were part of the Imagination Library when they were younger.

“The day that the mail would come, with the books addressed to the kids, it was such an exciting day. Many of those books became my kids’ favorite books,” she said.

The family moved to Franklin in 2008, and one of the first things she did was see if Johnson County had an Imagination Library. The county did not.

Still, Crisafulli held on to the idea, which became more concrete after a literacy project she was involved with in January. She is an English professor at Franklin college, and this year taught a winter-term course called “The Power of Literacy.”

The class looked at the state of reading and literacy in the U.S.

“We learned that fourth grade is the point where kids go from learning to read to reading to learn. If they’re not reading proficiently by fourth grade, then their chances of improving their reading skills are very slim,” Crisafulli said.

Students also spent time volunteering at Northwood Elementary School to tutor struggling children. The experience put all of the statistics and research they had covered in class into perspective.

“So many of them could see the power that literacy has and how many issues arise when kids don’t have strong literacy skills,” Crisafulli said. “We talked about different options to work on the issue, and the Imagination Library came up. I thought that would be within my reach.”

Following the winter term course, Crisafulli took a sabbatical and made setting up an Imagination Library her featured project. She had to find a nonprofit organization to partner with, one of the requirements of the Dollywood Foundation. She found that with the Johnson County Community Foundation, which is hosting a fund for the local program.

Crisafulli also has been reaching out to local schools, social service agencies and other civic groups to gain support for the Imagination Library. She worked with Johnson Memorial Health to enlist their help getting parents to sign up their children at birth.

With the help of elementary school principals, she hopes to be able to reach parents whose younger kids would be eligible for the program.

“One issue that kids with low literacy skills have is sequencing — the idea that first this happens, then this happens, then this happens. Kids that listen to stories all the time know that,” she said. “Having exposure to stories, having people read to them, has such an impact.”

For the time being, the program only will be available to children who live within the boundaries of Franklin Community Schools. Local communities are responsible for raising money for the books, which cost approximately $25 per year for each child. To fund an Imagination Library for every preschool-age child in that area, it will cost about $29,000.

But eventually, with enough monetary support, they’d like to extend it to all of Johnson County. Doing so would cost more than $140,000 per year, Crisafulli said.

The Dollywood Foundation has provided a five-year roll-out plan to help local organizers target as many children as possible and raise the necessary money to provide books for them.

Franklin’s Imagination Library set a first-year goal of raising $3,000, and already, Crisafulli has gathered more than $7,000 in donations.

“We’re building nicely, and moving in the right direction,” she said.

The challenge now is getting people signed up. Crisafulli has ordered brochures explaining the program, which will be placed at pediatricians’ offices, schools and other social agencies to help parents enroll their kids.

An online link also is live, so families can quickly sign up.

As part of her sabbatical proposal, Crisafulli also is tying a research component into starting the Imagination Library. Starting with newborns that are signed up this year, she will track them for the next five years, comparing them to children who did not participate in the program.

The hope is to see how prepared each group is as they reach kindergarten.

“The research that has been done similar to that shows that Imagination Library kids are more prepared for kindergarten, and that their academic achievement persists into second and third grade,” Crisafulli said. “The goal is not that they can read when they get to kindergarten. The goal is to have some familiarity with books. That’s literacy building, because they’re learning a process.”

At a glance

Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library

What: A free program for families in which children are mailed a new book every month. The goal is to help build literacy skills and a love of reading in local children.

Who: The program organized nationwide by the Dollywood Foundation.

Who can take part: Any child under the age of 5 living within the boundaries of Franklin Community Schools can register.

How to sign up: Parents can go to to start online registration. They can also contact Susan Crisafulli at to help.

Support the Imagination Library: Donations are being accepted for the program through the Johnson County Community Foundation. Go to to support the cause.

Author photo
Ryan Trares is a reporter for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at or 317-736-2727.